Bring me a sword … divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.

– King Solomon, 1 Kings 3:24-25

The recent release of Census population estimates brings to mind the shocking story of King Solomon’s method for settling a dispute between two woman, each claiming to be the mother of a newborn child. Faced with the cruel prospect of a dead son, the real mother pleaded with the king to give the child to the other woman. Solomon in his wisdom, of course, recognized the truth and gave the child to the woman who chose life for her son.

The Census projections of slow and negative population growth juxtaposed with the continuing controversy about budget cuts in the University of Maine System and the ongoing rush for the exits among municipalities seeking to escape the forced school consolidations of the past decade continue a long tradition in Maine. People prefer to follow Solomon’s command – “Give everyone a little (however lifeless)” – rather than his wisdom – “Face the unavoidably painful decisions of nurturing life in a difficult situation.”

And if the recent population estimates have any overriding message, it is that Maine communities face a continuing series of Solomon-like choices, choices about education, about roads, about public employment, about all the elements of community infrastructure built up over generations. According to Census estimates, Maine’s population between 2010 and 2013 was statistically unchanged, down by 59 people in a population of just over 1.3 million. But viewed regionally, that stability is the result of an increase of just over 1.1 percent in Greater Portland (York, Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties), no change in coastal Maine (Lincoln, Knox, Waldo and Hancock counties), a decline of 0.4 percent in central Maine (Androscoggin, Kennebec and Penobscot counties) and a decline of 1.6 percent in the rim counties bordering Canada (Washington, Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin and Oxford).

These percentage numbers may seem small, even inconsequential. But when spread over the numbers of communities involved, the impact of the fiscal choices that will face voters over the coming decade becomes daunting. The Greater Portland area encompasses three counties and 68 communities. Of these cities and towns, only 8 percent or 12 percent experienced zero, or negative, population growth. The rim county area, in contrast, encompasses six counties and 246 cities, towns and sections of unorganized territory. Of these, 229 or fully 93 percent experienced zero or negative population growth.

In many ways, Millinocket has become the poster child for these communities – a once thriving mill town now enduring the loss of jobs, income, tax base and population. Those who remain must face the harsh reality of maintaining public assets and services in the face of both a declining tax base and declining incomes. This year’s hard choices will become next year’s harder choices. Marginal cuts and duct tape will no longer suffice to balance budgets. The overriding message of the Census numbers is that Millinocket is far from alone.

Cities and towns across the region – as well as many in other regions – will face similarly Solomonic decisions each and every budget season for the foreseeable future. And these choices will confront not just local governments, but also local hospitals, the regional divisions of electric utilities and the state Department of Transportation, as well as Internet providers, broadcasters and every other enterprise that currently spreads its services over a broad area with a declining population.

A decade ago, the university system rejected reforms anticipating the cost and enrollment problems that now plague it. As a result, it is now forced to operate in crisis mode and force solutions no one favors. Many other of Maine’s public institutions should take heed and begin formulating their own solutions to the Solomon’s choice that they all surely face.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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